The PA altered a major proposal, but left MLB with an ultimatum

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The Players Association met with Major League Baseball on Thursday for a counterproposal, and the meeting ran 15 minutes before a slightly longer side session between lead negotiators began. We do not know all of the details of what was inside of the PA’s proposal — all of these documents are a whole lot longer and encompass much more than what we have leaked — but there was still plenty made known in the aftermath.

Let’s start with what was learned first. The Players Association pulled back on one of their proposals, and submitted a modified version to the league in the hopes they would be more amenable to that. The league doesn’t seem to be amenable to anything besides the status quo, of course, but the PA has to pick and choose what they’re going to stand completely firm on and what they’re going to give a little on, and it appears they have chosen to avoid changing their minimum salary plan. The arbitration proposal, on the other hand, which previously demanded that all players with two years of service time would become arbitration-eligible instead of having to wait for three years, has been altered.

Instead, the PA is proposing that Super Two eligibility be expanded from the top 22 percent of pre-arb service time accruals to the top 80 percent. By Tim Dierkes’ reckoning, that would have meant another 79 players eligible for having four years of arbitration starting this offseason instead of the standard three, as the Super Two service time eligibility threshold would have changed from 2.116 (two years and 116 days — 172 days equal a full year of service) to 2.028. It’s not quite as expansive as every single player getting four years of arbitration, of course, but when coupled with another change the PA made, it still makes for a solid way to maneuver around MLB’s complete stonewalling of this subject without surrendering to the status quo.

That change is to the pre-arb bonus pool setup, which previously encompassed the top 30 players as measured by some still-to-be-worked-out wins above replacement calculation. The PA had dropped the bonus pool proposal size to $100 million, but has now requested to jump it back to the initial $115 million amount, and have it cover the top 150 pre-arbitration players by a TBD WAR variant instead of the top 30. This drops the size of the average bonus considerably — it was over $3 million when it was just the 30 players — but it spreads the wealth in a way that would mean a huge chunk of pre-arbitration players who stick on rosters and play would receive a boost to their pay. The average size of the bonus there would be about $770,000, or, pretty close to the minimum salary the PA has also proposed for 2022.

I had some concerns about the top 30 model, as I discussed at Baseball Prospectus: I was a little concerned there would be too much focus on the team side of trying to avoid setting any kind of hefty financial precedent prior to arbitration, that it could cause a bit more service time manipulation of a different sort, and that it would mostly reward a class of players who were going to end their careers with plenty of money from other sources like arbitration and free agency. Spreading things out like this, however, is philosophically more sound to me if the goal is to keep finding ways to get younger players money so they’re less exploited than they are now: it’s less money per player, yes, but it’s more players with money, and the amount being extracted from the league is the same, too. Imagine a player who gets bumped between the majors and the minors a few times in a season, so they don’t actually earn the full extent of the big-league minimum salary since they’re occasionally making the minors’ 40-man-roster equivalent, but they sneak onto the back of this top-150 leaderboard, anyway, and pull in a bonus that’s more than what they were paid that year. Or imagine that a rookie or second-year player ends up being one of the very best on the team, and that club is paying them just the minimum: wouldn’t it be nice to get paid a bit extra for doing so well, and not have that pay be dependent on whether the club thinks it’s a good idea to renew at a higher-than-the-minimum rate the following spring?

It’s not a perfect system, by any means — I conceptually hate the pay-to-play model and leaning on any kind of WAR, especially since none of this is going to be tied to revenue-scaling — but if this is the system that’s going to be utilized, this at least seems like a quality version of it that will help more players in the end.

And last, Ben Nicholson-Smith reported on Thursday evening that the Players Association left the league with an ultimatum to ponder: if the players do not get to play a full 162-game season with 100 percent of their salaries paid, they will not agree to an expanded postseason for the 2022 season. The players have agreed, conceptually, to an expanded postseason, but clearly, the specifics to this point do not include a guarantee of one occurring in 2022. This is a brilliant bit of leverage on the thing the league wants the most outside of dropping the union into a deep pit and leaving it for dead. The players are telling the league that they cannot bank on an expanded postseason to make up for any revenues lost at the start of the year, should spring training games and regular season games be missed. And they’re doing it without putting their greatest asset among potential proposals back in the deck: the union can still negotiate for an expanded postseason from 2023 onward, but if they don’t get a full 162-game season for 2022, the price the league must pay is in both actual revenue and potential revenue, as well.

It works well in actual bargaining, but it’s also a deft bit of public relations work. The union is saying, loud and clear, that they want to play 162 games. Whether they want to play them because they want their full salaries isn’t quite immaterial, but it’s not the most significant point to draw from the declaration. The union is separating itself even further from the idea that it has anything to do with the threat that the season will not start on time. We’ll see if it’s all as convincing and/or panic-inducing to the league as the “when and where” strategy of 2020 was, but for now, we do know that there are plans to potentially meet for bargaining every day next week in order to sort things out before MLB’s imposed “the season won’t start on time if we come to an agreement after this” date of February 28.

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